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Review: 'Life, on the Line' by Alinea chef Grant Achatz a story of focus, fragility

From the age of 5, Grant Achatz didn't merely have the goal of having the best restaurant in the country; he systematically determined the best path to that goal, then followed it, occasionally making modest changes to the course along the way.

The story, told in his new memoir Life, on the Line, comes to its climax when Achatz (pronounced AK-atz) finds a business partner who becomes his great friend, and they open Chicago's Alinea restaurant together in 2005. They have to wait barely a year before it is crowned the country's best restaurant by Gourmet magazine. All that despite, and because of, a radically progressive cuisine that not everyone "got."

That part of the story takes up the first 300 pages of the book, and it is fascinating and inspiring, a life lesson on vision and self-determination.

But the biggest lessons happen in the last 90 pages, lessons about strength and friendship.

Achatz was diagnosed with a late-stage cancer of the tongue and lymph nodes in 2007. Doctors — a line of them — said he would be dead in a matter of months if they didn't cut out his tongue, and immediately would be the best time to do it.

A chef losing his tongue. The irony was so ludicrous and Achatz's dedication to his craft so great that he took time to consider the options. Lose his life, or the thing that defined his life.

"It would be a Shakespearean tragedy," his business partner, Nick Kokonas, told the Chicago Tribune at the time.

The book tells the story alternately from the perspective of each partner, and we learn that Achatz's spirit was so beaten by the first, second and third opinions that he wasn't interested in a fourth.

"I was more or less certain that I was going to die fairly soon," he said.

Kokonas isn't as accepting of fate, though. He tirelessly searches for an option that has a chance of ending well, and he finds a group getting notable results in a medical trial with a radically progressive, and aggressive, treatment of chemotherapy and radiation. He drags Achatz to them. They go for it.

What follows is a physical beating that takes a huge toll on the chef, including the loss of his sense of taste. But — since he wrote the book, it doesn't seem a spoiler to give this part away — he wins.

Jim Webster can be reached at or (727) 893-8746.

Life, on the Line

By Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas

Gotham, 400 pages, $27.50

For more information on Grant
Achatz's restaurant, Alinea, go to

Review: 'Life, on the Line' by Alinea chef Grant Achatz a story of focus, fragility 03/05/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 6, 2011 1:30pm]
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